Photo: Wilmer Errades / AVN

CNE: A New Hope?

The appointment of the new principal members of the Electoral Board opens a window of opportunity, not only for the opposition, with two members having a seat at the table, but also for the Maduro government

On Tuesday, May 4th, the National Assembly elected in 2020 appointed the new members of the National Electoral Council (CNE) Board of Directors. After more than 15 years, the odd thing was that two names associated with the opposition had managed to make the cut and were designated among the principal members of the electoral body: Enrique Márquez and Roberto Picón.

The arrival of Márquez and Picón to the Electoral Branch has been taken as an important first step by multiple sectors of Venezuelan society and the international community. Geoff Ramsey, director for Venezuela of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), assured Caracas Chronicles that “although it’s insufficient in itself to restore democracy, mobilized civil society actors are describing the formation of a new CNE as a small but important step.”

For its part, the Unitary Platform led by Juan Guaidó called on the international community “to not allow,  participate or encourage partial initiatives of the regime whose purposes are none other than to ‘normalize’ the arbitrary and dictatorial imposition of those who had hurt the country and thus divide the democratic forces.”

Yet the request for a 3-2 CNE (three chavista rectors, two opposition leaders) is a reality demanded at the failed negotiation table in the Dominican Republic in 2017-2018 by some of the same parties condemning it today. 

The difference: how we got here.

The Ever-Ending Story 

The last time the Venezuelan opposition had two main rectors in the CNE was in 2004. Sobella Mejías and Ezequiel Zamora accompanied Jorge Rodríguez, Francisco Carrasquero and Oscar Battaglini on the board. After the recall referendum, chavismo clenched its fists and limited the opposition’s participation: first Vicente Díaz and then Luis Emilio Rondón were the only opposition voices for the next 15 years.

The demonstrations of 2017, which were preceded by the resounding opposition victory in the 2015 parliamentary elections, forced the Maduro government to sit at the negotiating table. In the final agreement, one of the requests of the opposition delegation was “that the two rectors appointed on December 13th, 2016 by the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ) be selected. These will be the result of the consensus of the signatories of this agreement.” The deal was never signed.

Power doesn’t only reside in the majority of the board. It also resides in its internal designations.

In 2020, Maduro made the same concession, only this time he kept it for the opposition faction that sat at the National Dialogue Table. Two rectors for the December parliamentary elections were named as a result of the agreement with la mesita: Rafael Simón Jiménez (later replaced by Leonardo Morales after Jiménez resigned) and José Luis Gutiérrez, to whom Maduro’s TSJ had granted the Acción Democrática party card.

In a board that makes decisions by simple majority, 4-1 equals 3-2. “The composition continues to favor the ruling party, considering the principals,” says political scientist John Magdaleno, “and it’s logical to think that with the new directive of the CNE, which is perhaps the most plural that there’s been in years, it’ll be difficult to restore all the violated guarantees regarding the electoral processes.” 

Furthermore, in the CNE, power doesn’t only reside in the majority of the board. It also resides in its internal designations.

The Real President

There are two bodies of particular importance within the CNE. First is the Junta Nacional Electoral (JNE), in charge of the direction, supervision, and control of all actions relating to the development of electoral processes and referenda. Tania D ‘Amelio will preside over the JNE and will also be a member of the other important body within the Electoral Branch: the Civil and Electoral Registry Commission, in charge of, among other things, the Permanent Electoral Registry.

“Owing to the power quotas that Tania D’Amelio accumulates, it can be said that she will be, in practice, the president (of the CNE), while (Pedro) Calzadilla will be the administrative president,” wrote the journalist specialized in electoral matters, Eugenio Martínez on his Twitter account.

However, the presence of Roberto Picón in the National Electoral Board is an advance. Picón is a long-standing electoral technician, from his participation in the NGO Ojo Electoral, to his role in restructuring the Democratic Unity Table, before his arrest in 2017 by state security forces.

Enrique Márquez, appointed as vice president of the CNE, will direct the Political Party Financing Commission. At the same time, Conrado Pérez, one of the deputies indicated by Armando.Info in 2019’s Operación Alacrán, will be the “opposition” representative in the Civil and Electoral Registry Commission.

Is There a Way?

In the press, and among politicians on Twitter, the question is what all this means. The response, like the opposition, is divided. 

Owing to the power quotas that Tania D’Amelio accumulates, it can be said that she will be, in practice, the president (of the CNE).

“The appointment of a new CNE is necessary, but insufficient if not accompanied by other political agreements accompanying the return of electoral guarantees,”  said Eugenio Martínez to Caracas Chronicles. This tone of cautious optimism is shared by Magdaleno: “We’ll have to wait for new signs. What’s very easy to see is that there won’t be entirely free and competitive elections in Venezuela in the immediate future because that’s characteristic of democratic regimes, not of hegemonic authoritarianism.”

Former rector Vicente Díaz is more optimistic: “It’s the best opposition representation that the opposition has had in years. Better than when I was there, due to the experience accumulated by Roberto Picón and Enrique Márquez during all these years. In addition, there are no scarecrows within the rectors (as was Tibisay Lucena, for example). There are sufficient technical capacities within the CNE to rebuild the electoral route,” he said in an interview for Globovisión.

The fact also moves the board of what has been, in recent years, a zero-sum game. “The new CNE is there to guarantee these minimum electoral conditions. It isn’t the final solution; it’s only a slit of opportunity,” wrote political consultant Carmen Beatriz Fernández.

Yes, it’s a window for the opposition… and also for the Maduro government. The entry to COVAX, the house arrest measure for the “Citgo 6,” and the new CNE are all gestures of the Maduro government to the international community seeking the relaxation of economic and oil sanctions for an administration that has to juggle to pay its imports and obligations, as seen in the COVAX process itself, paid in Swiss francs with the condition that the World Health Organization itself would be in charge of making the conversion to American dollars. No official reaction has come from Washington yet, although the NSC Director for the Western Hemisphere liked this tweet from Michael Penfold. 

“It’s time to adjust expectations and work with the options that are available,” explains Magdaleno. “The only available option that I see at this precise moment is for the political opposition to better organize, articulate, and coordinate to constitute a source of internal pressure since external pressure, which can help, isn’t enough.”

For Magdaleno, there are only two ways to mobilize the main source of the potential power for the opposition: demonstrations and elections. “As long as the opposition leadership continues to delay the decision to use these two available resources in a coordinated manner with each other, I would even say simultaneously, the more complicated the prospects of a hypothetical transition to democracy in Venezuela will be.”